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Limoncello: time to be taken seriously?

Long seen as a cheap sweet treat for after meals, limoncello is aiming to appeal to a new generation of imbibers and bartenders by highlighting artisanal production and natural ingredients.

Can limoncello be seen as a premium liqueur?

Luigi Nunziata’s ancestors started farming on Sorrento’s beautiful rugged coastline in 1385. The family cultivated grapes and mulberry trees for the production of wine and silk, introducing lemon trees to the area in the 17th century after Italian monks discovered the medicinal benefits of vitamin C. Thousands of tourists now visit Giardino di Vigliano to wander beneath its fragrant citrus canopy and learn about the history of the Sorrento lemon – and enjoy a taste of one of Italy’s most famous beverages: limoncello.

One of the first things they will discover is that, like many other estates, Vigliano’s lemon trees start their life as bitter orange trees, which have stronger roots. After around five years of growing, Nunziata’s team grafts lemon tree branches onto the orange plant, which then, over time, takes on the characteristics of a lemon tree. The trees are protected under traditional pergolas, and are fortified by mineral-rich soil.

“The real secret of cultivation is this volcanic land,” says Nunziata. “Thousands of years ago the area was covered in volcanic material, and this continues to enrich the soil, making our lemons very soft. It’s so rich with minerals and we have a low pH level. Everything is sweeter because of the soil – our lemons do not taste like others.”

These bulbous, fragrant fruits are some of the most flavourful lemons in the world, but their bumpy exterior and occasionally discoloured wax means they are shunned by supermarkets, whose shoppers seek picture-perfect products. Sorrento lemons – and other protected geographical indication (PGI) lemons from Amalfi and Sicily – also face tough competition from cheaper lemon growers in Spain and other parts of the world.

As such, Nunziata says Italy’s limoncello industry has allowed Sorrento gardens such as his to continue operating. “Without limoncello, there would not be lemons here,” he says, adding that 60% of Sorrento lemons are sold to limoncello makers.

Artisanal production

Vigliano supplies lemons to Italian drinks group Molinari for its Limoncello di Capri brand. The beverage was first produced at the end of the 19th century by Vincenza Canale, who offered homemade limoncello to guests at her hotel on Capri. Lemons from the hotel’s garden are still used for the production of Limoncello di Capri, which also requires the entire lemon crop from Vigliano, and purchases fruit from a number of other suppliers. While Molinari continues to use Canale’s original recipe, the group moved production from the island of Capri to mainland Sorrento in 2016.

The team at the Limoncello di Capri factory, which overlooks Sorrento’s jagged coast, peppered with olive trees and superyachts, collects lemons from January to June each year, and uses only the peels to create the limoncello. The peels infuse alcohol for a number of days before the liquid is filtered then mixed with sugar and water. No additional flavours or additives are used.

Molinari now spies an opportunity for limoncello to be taken more seriously in the drinks world by capitalising on its “artisanal production” and extensive history. According to Ana Maria Tarrús de Vehí, corporate ambassador at Molinari, limoncello is experiencing a “good moment”.

She explains: “Nowadays the category is more well-known around the world, and there is a growing interest from bartenders and consumers for more natural, traditional products, and products with artisanal production – this is the case for Limoncello di Capri. Limoncello is also great for using in cocktails, and with tonic we have a lower-abv drink, which is very trendy at the moment. We need bartenders to explore the potential of the products – we see more than just one way of consuming limoncello.”

Giardino di Vigliano is based along Sorrento’s beautiful coast

Prosecco giant Bottega has been producing limoncino – another word for limoncello – for 30 years, launching the grappa-based Bottega Limoncino in 1989. The group infuses alcohol with protected Sicilian lemons, and the liquid is then blended with Prosecco grappa.

Sandro Bottega, owner and managing director of the company, believes premium limoncellos have the potential to appeal to a more discerning and younger audience. “Millennials look for simple, natural, environmentally conscious products made by brands that are innovative. They prefer craft products,” he says.

Zamora Company completed the acquisition of Sorrento-made Villa Massa in 2017, having bought a minority stake in 2006. The firm’s managing director international, Thomas Clamens, cites IWSR data indicating that “premium limoncello shows the strongest growth within liqueurs”, with a 5% rise in global sales between 2014 and 2018. “This is being driven by the increasing thirst globally for natural craft products that clearly indicate their origins and provenance,” he says.

Problem of perception

However, limoncello makers seeking new markets and occasions face a problem of perception. As Molinari’s Tarrús de Vehí notes, cheap limoncellos are often given to guests for free after meals in Italy, and in Italian-style restaurants abroad. This will do little to create an exalted image for the category, and stakeholders believe education is needed to show consumers that limoncellos are not all of the same quality.

Sandro Bottega says: “In Italy, limoncello is a commodity. There are huge differences in quality between artisanal products and industrial products, between various production methods and between the diverse varieties of lemons used in the recipe.”

EU law does not protect limoncello, meaning brands are not legally required to adhere to a set of standards. “The terms ‘limoncello’ and ‘limoncino’ are fictional names that indicate the traditional Italian liqueur produced using lemons in Italy. They are not protected names,” Bottega explains.

Limoncello di Capri is aiming to challenge consumer perceptions about the category

Meanwhile, Tarrús de Vehí estimates that 80% of limoncellos on the market do not even contain real lemons, and instead use only artificial flavouring and colouring.

However, if a limoncello brand markets itself as made with a variety of PGI lemon, it must adhere to a certain production criteria. For instance, limoncellos that display the ‘Limone di Sorrento’ label must exclusively use the peels of Limone di Sorrento lemons (grown along the Sorrento peninsula or on Capri), use at least 250g of peels per litre, contain between 250g and 350g of sugar per litre, be bottled at no less than 30% abv, and be devoid of all preservatives and additives. The product must also be distilled along the Sorrento peninsula or on Capri.

As well as putting extra effort into communicating its premium credentials, Bottega Limoncino is innovating to appeal to new audiences. The brand has released a line extension made using only 100% organic ingredients – called Bottega Limoncino Bio – and is working on a collection of new bottlings produced with different varieties of lemons. The brand is also planning to launch a series of lemon liqueurs “enhanced with Mediterranean flavours” such as basil, mint and other citrus fruits. “We would also like to associate [our brand] more with the Mediterranean diet,” says Sandro Bottega.

‘Noble cousin’

This year, Villa Massa released a herb-infused limoncello made from Sorrento lemons and Mediterranean basil. The combination of citrus and herbal flavours is said to offer a “perfectly balanced after-dinner experience”.

Other lemon-flavoured liqueurs are working to capture the attention of limoncello drinkers. Described as a “noble cousin to the limoncello”, Acqua di Cedro was released by grappa producer Nardini in the mid-1800s. It is made from the citron fruit, which makes it drier than traditional limoncellos, and has a crystal-clear appearance. “The limoncello market is pretty saturated, and you can find some low-quality products that are neon yellow and don’t bear much resemblance to a genuine limoncello,” says Antonio Guarda Nardini, managing director of the company. “That’s why we feel we have an edge with our clear, sophisticated product.”

Sophistication is exactly the image that leaders of limoncello want to portray. But whether this classic Italian drink can follow the likes of vermouth and bitter liqueurs into the cocktail mainstream remains to be seen. Brands such as Limoncello di Capri, Villa Massa and Bottega Limoncino are certainly confident they can, and are putting greater investment into expanding the category’s global appeal than ever before.

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